International Research Cooperation on Sinology

New Publication:

Chinese Export Paintings of the Qing Period in The British Library   

Professor  Wang Tzi-Cheng, Department of Chinese Literature

Important aspects of these volumes

 1. Research results of international co-operation, not often seen in the field of Sinology

Research and writing began at the end of 2003, after agreement was reached between the British Library, theSchoolofOrientaland African Studies,LondonUniversityand theInstituteofHistory,ChineseAcademyof Social Sciences. (I subsequently left theSchoolofOrientaland African Studies in August 2005 to join the Department of Chinese Literature,NationalCentralUniversity.) The volumes were published in July 2011, after a period of almost eight years. The four authors come from different backgrounds, and this international project is a rare example of academic co-operation in the field of Sinology.



2. A first publication of valuable pictorial documents

From the eighteenth to the early twentieth century, with the west’s expansion of trade, their colonising and search for the exotic in their travels, and their interest in China, these paintings, using a combination of Chinese and western techniques, and illustrating scenes of social life, landscape, buildings, and production technology, etc.,  were produced in Canton for export. These paintings have mostly survived abroad in western countries, and very few art historians and scholars inChinaknew of their existence. Quite a few of the seven hundred and fifty or so export paintings in the British Library are rare and unique, and have not been exhibited before. This is the first time that they have been studied and published as a group, and their academic importance and value as a collector’s item are not to be neglected.


3. Opening up a new field through an interdisciplinary study of history,  culture and art

Export paintings belong to the field of art, but in terms of content, they are valuable pictorial documents of the history of east-west cultural interaction, of social life, and customs of the marketplace. Using the two categories of “Street and Marketplace Occupations inCanton” and “Beijing Life and Customs” as an example, these paintings illustrate aspects of food, clothing, living and travelling in the two cities ofCantonandBeijingin the nineteenth century.

Research on export paintings include history, culture and art, and with related knowledge of anthropology, sociology, technology, etc. The research in these volumes demonstrate three points, one, the close connection between different fields of study; two, the possibility and inevitability of an inter-disciplinary approach; and three, the importance of breadth of knowledge, and thus a team-effort being the key to success.


 4. Using pictures to corroborate the historical records, and using writing to explain the pictures – a breakthrough in past research on export paintings

In the more than two hundred years since Chinese export paintings began to arrive in the west, there has been no systematic or complete publication. The work of organising the paintings by type, examining each one singly and researching the content of each painting has hardly been done before. For this reason, a variety of different opinions as to the content of these paintings and their artistic and historical value has arisen. The authors of these volumes have worked together to resolve such fundamental problems and taken a valuable first step.  The fundamental requirement of historical and cultural research is that it should strive for the real, the truth. The systematic arrangement of the material and research using original documents are important fundamentals to this approach. In these volumes, each category of painting includes an introduction and commentary on each painting, in Chinese and English. The introduction gives a background to the topic and a summary of the content of the paintings, while the commentary on each painting includes the title, date of production and painting material, and a concise commentary on the content of the painting, based on Chinese and Western written sources. These volumes therefore provide rich pictorial and written sources for the study of Qing history.


5. Aiming for a wide audience with illustration and commentary in Chinese and English

Extant export watercolours were mainly painted with gouache or watercolour on silk, paper, or pith paper. The paintings in these volumes have been reproduced to a high degree of excellence, and the work should be considered a collector’s item. The commentaries to the right of each painting are written to a high academic standard with notes supplied for readers to pursue further reading. The English commentary follows the Chinese, to allow those western readers who do not read Chinese to enjoy the paintings. Hopefully, the volumes will provide some excitement amongst readers of the Chinese and Western world.


6. Filling in a gap in the study of Qing period history and Chinese art history

Chinese export paintings were produced during a limited period of just over two hundred years and flourished during a particular period of Chinese history, disappearing then without a trace, leaving no influence at all on the development of recent Chinese painting. This a rare phenomenon in the history of Chinese and Western painting, yet now we recognize the significance of these paintings as research materials for the study of China’s relations with the western world and of China’s social and art history. They are “art”, yet not official art, and “illustrations of history”, yet have not been considered as historical documentation. The publication of these volumes therefore fills in a gap in the study of Qing history and Chinese art history.